TAMPA — Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush hit familiar turf Monday to shake off an uneven debate performance and jump-start his campaign.
With a new slogan in tow — "Jeb can fix it" — Bush kicked off a three-state, four-day tour at home in Florida by chastising those who say his campaign is on life support. Starting at the Tampa Garden Club, Bush sought to convince his base that rumors of his demise are greatly exaggerated and that critics and pundits aren't going to change the kind of race he runs.
In case he wasn't clear enough, Journey's Don't Stop Believin' blared from the speakers as he ended a 20-minute speech and shook hands with supporters.
"I am running this campaign on my own terms," Bush said. "And let me tell you something: When the dust clears, and the delegates are counted, we will win this campaign."
The line earned Bush raucous cheers from several hundred people who came to his first Tampa rally. But defiant statements aside, Bush has made changes, and not just the new slogan. He reorganized his campaign last week to be a leaner operation in the face of dwindling resources, capped by the exit of Christine Ciccone, his chief operating officer.
Bush coyly panned his performance in the debates — "As you may have heard, last week I was in Colorado for the third Republican presidential debate," he said to laughs — but he downplayed their significance as a battle for sound bites.
"I'm not stepping into the role of angry agitator that they have created for us, because it's not in my heart," Bush said. "In the end that role is just a bit part in the story of another conservative loss, and another liberal victory."
His most ardent supporters recognize that the debates haven't been Bush's strength, but believe his retail politics can make up for it.
"I think he needs to sell his record individual by individual across the country," said Todd Parrish, who traveled from Orlando to see Bush in Tampa and left with rolls of Bush stickers. "He's not flash; he's substance."
But some can't understand why an accomplished former governor with so many political victories under his belt is having trouble standing out against the likes of Donald Trump and neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
"I have to believe that he's a professional and has done this before and knows what he's doing," said Don Sullivan, a former state senator who attended the Tampa rally, "But I would like to hear him talk more about what he's going to do to reform Washington."
Bush did score an unexpected victory to launch his tour, winning the endorsement of state Rep. Richard Corcoran, a Land O'Lakes Republican set to be House speaker starting in November 2016. Corcoran, who was Marco Rubio's legislative chief of staff, had previously not taken sides in the presidential race, but on Monday, he declared Bush "without question, the most courageous conservative in this race."
"When you ask yourself who you think should be the leader of the free world, the absolute easiest decision for me was to say it should be Gov. Jeb Bush," Corcoran told reporters in Winter Park. "It's not against anybody else; it's absolutely a statement for who I know can lead this country and put us back on a path to greatness."
Asked whether he'd spoken to Rubio about his endorsement of Bush, Corcoran initially hesitated to answer, calling it "personal."
But then he said: "No, I have. Of course, I have. Marco's a friend. Of course, I'd give him that dignity. I explained to him, as he knows full well, that I have tremendous respect for Marco. … It's nothing against Marco Rubio, nothing at all."
Bush has been more aggressive going after Rubio, a former ally whom Bush previously said he wouldn't attack.
That continued Monday when Bush lobbed an indirect, but not-so-subtle, jab at Rubio's poor attendance record in the U.S. Senate, and when he said the solution to America's problems won't be solved by "sending someone from one side of the capital city to the other." Rubio, as well as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, fit that description.
From Tampa, Winter Park and Jacksonville on Monday, Bush moves on to the early primary states of South Carolina and New Hampshire to stress his record in Florida as a blueprint for his administration.
"I turned the political culture in Tallahassee upside down," Bush said. "I'm putting the Beltway on notice. I'll turn Washington upside down, too."
Can the message help Bush overcome his early stumbles? Donald Tyler, an uncommitted Republican retiree who traveled from Dunedin to hear Bush speak in Tampa, said he walked away more impressed by the candidate.
Still, Tyler wasn't sure why he and many others are slow to embrace a new Bush in the White House.
"I used to think it was the name," Tyler said. "Now I think that he waited too long to run after being governor. I like his politics, I like that he's kind of more moderate, and you'd think by now I would be for him."
Contact Steve Contorno at firstname.lastname@example.org and Kristen M. Clark at email@example.com.